How the EPA linked “fracking” to contaminated well water

ARS Technica - 9.12.2011

Hydraulic fracturing (more commonly referred to as “fracking”) involves the injection of fluid at high pressure into a well, opening or widening fractures in the rock below that free up the flow of natural gas. Domestic natural gas production has been booming as a result, but opponents claim the technique contaminates drinking water, causing serious health effects.

Rigorous studies on fracking have been sparse, and the impassioned debate has raged on. A new investigation by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) at a site in Wyoming is one of the first to look thoroughly at the potential link between fracking operations and groundwater contamination. The agency’s report was released yesterday—and it provides a clear link between fracking and water supply problems.

In 2005, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act. Citing the recent EPA study as justification, the act amended the definition of “underground injection” in the Safe Drinking Water Act and added an exemption for fracking operations.

As a result of the fracking exemption, any chemicals injected as fracking fluid would not be regulated, on the basis that this is only a temporary injection—most of the fluid is pumped right back out of the ground again. Later on, it became apparent that fracking in some locations can leave as much as 80 percent of the fluid in the ground. This leaves the regulatory lines rather blurry—injection for fracking is not regulated, but injection of spent fluid for long-term disposal is. The exemption had its own exemption—the injection of diesel fuel for fracking would be regulated, due to the EPA’s early concerns.

Efforts by other researchers and government officials have resulted in some publicly available lists of chemicals. Representatives Waxman, Markey, and DeGette released a report in April listing 750 compounds voluntarily disclosed by 14 companies. (A little over 10 percent of the fracking fluid used by volume between 2005 and 2009 contained proprietary compounds that were not divulged.) Of the 750 substances listed, 29 are either known human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or listed as air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.

Currently, we’re at a critical point that could determine the future of domestic natural gas production. The EPA is in the middle of the first national review of fracking safety concerns. The final report isn’t due until 2014, but the initial results should be released before the end of 2012.

Given the results of this work, as well as the significant questions that remained, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry recommended that the affected residents “use alternate or treated water supplies… as their source of drinking water.” The agency also recommended that they install vents on their wells and ventilate bathrooms while showering to prevent any possibility of explosive hazards caused by accumulating methane.

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